Review: 'American Made', Tom Cruise Soars As Drug Smuggling Flyboy

Tom Cruise is feeling the need for speed again, and he's still fighting for the good guys. It just depends on who you think the good guys are. American Made, formerly titled Mena which would have been much better and made just as much sense, shouldn't be as much fun as it is considering the story it tells. Cruise straps into the cockpit as Barry Seal, a disgruntled TWA pilot in the 1970s and '80s who crossed paths with the CIA, the Medellin drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar, the FBI, the Reagan Administration...and they all came to regret it. He lived a wild, fast, and dangerous life, and American Made is exactly the kind of movie Seal would probably want made about it.

In the best role he's had in years, Cruise plays Seal as Maverick if he were corrupted by the Dark Side. Take the opening scene in which Seal quietly takes the TWA plane he's flying up a few thousand feet before rattling it around, scaring the crap out of the sleeping passengers and his co-pilot. Seal is off the chain, using his flights to smuggle Cuban cigars into the country. Hey, he's gotta feed his growing family and take care of his beautiful young wife Lucy (Sarah Wright, also good) somehow. His willingness to bend the rules catches the eye of the mysterious Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson), who recruits him to take dangerous aerial photos in Colombia as part of a front aviation company with the initials IAC. Gee, who could his real employers be? Hmmm....

It isn't long before Seal has also caught the eye of the Medellin Cartel who ask him to smuggle cocaine into America. Of course he'll do it. The money is amazing, but there's more to it than that. The glint in Seal's eye gives it away; he loves the thrill, the rush, the danger of it. Soon he's not only moving cocaine, but also gun-running. For the drug cartels? Nah, for Uncle Sam. It seems everybody wanted a piece of Barry Seal, and for very good reason. "He the gringo who always delivers", is what they all say.

American Made is like Pain & Gain if it had snorted a line of Colombia's finest white. The story is supposed to be slippery and hard to follow; you'll need to pay attention to catch on to everything that's happening. But under the direction of Cruise's pal, Doug Liman, you'll come to enjoy that it feels like it's flying by the seat of its pants. Liman and Cruise last teamed up on Edge of Tomorrow, another complicated film that might have slipped from the grasp of a lesser director. Liman is a vastly different filmmaker from his last political movie, the Valerie Plame drama Fair Game, but we forget that he helped set the bar for the Bourne films with The Bourne Identity. He's a director that loves a challenge, be it narrative or visual, and American Made has both. Seal's story takes him around the world, from the jungles of Nicaragua to the dusty town of Mena, Arkansas that looks like it was left behind by time.

As Liman was the right guy to give Seal's story the madcap edge it needed, Cruise is more youthful here than he is in any of the movies where he does ridiculously crazy stuntwork to prove he's not old. While he does quite a bit of flying here, the most dangerous thing he does is get hit by big piles of money. Coincidentally one of the movie's best recurring sight gags are the dollar bills stuffed into every open space of Seal's home, place of business, wherever. Cruise's performance, and the movie itself for that matter, begin to resemble Henry Hill's paranoid dilemma at the tail end of Goodfellas. The government is closing in and watching Seal scramble is all part of the fun. Although sometimes the tone takes away from the seriousness of what Seal finds himself enveloped in, when his story comes to an end it's like crashing down from a great high.

Rating: 4 out of 5